Rowman and Littlefield International

Just Liberal Violence: Sweatshops, Torture, War

Published on Saturday 31 Mar 2018 by Michael Neu

Is it okay to exploit people in sweatshops if doing so prevents them from having to scavenge on trash dumps in order to make a living? Should we torture evil, bomb-planting villains as a necessary means to save people from being blown up? Can it sometimes be right to wage war in order to prevent innocents from being killed by some evil aggressor?


Some contemporary liberals spend their academic lives asking these questions about violence – and saying “yes” in response. They believe that identifying universal moral truths about just or justified violence can make a positive difference in the world; that it can protect rights and/or reduce suffering by preventing unjust or unjustified violence; and that it can be a force for good by raising political practices in existing liberal democracies to higher moral standards. Unfortunately, however, such thinking is not only misleading; it is also extremely dangerous. For, as I argue in my book, ‘defenders of just liberal violence contribute to a moral climate characterized by a pervasive amnesia about the histories, structures and politics of violence’. This is a climate in which violence is both misunderstood and sanctified; in which it feels good – perhaps elevating – to be violent. Allegedly “just” liberal violence is just that then: liberal violence. It is violence without adequate justification.


The main argument of my book is that defenders of just liberal violence all share a commitment to an “unexamined liberalism”, by which I mean a liberalism that engages in various forms of reduction. The first thing that gets reduced is violence itself. Defenders of just liberal violence often simply fail to recognize violence as violence. Take the example of leading sweatshop defender Benjamin Powell, who claims that ‘[t]he analysis of sexual harassment on the [sweatshop] job is much the same as the analysis of other working conditions. Laws that effectively eliminate sexual harassment would lower wages. If employees desired this, then market forces would remix the compensation package to minimize harassment and lower wages’ (Powell 2014, 69). Neither is the sexual harassment faced by sweatshop employees classified as violence – after all, they are said to have "voluntarily" chosen it – nor is the structure within they have had to make that "choice" – one where they may have been left with no alternative but to take such work after their land has been grabbed, for instance – understood as violent. Or think about “collateral” killing in war. As Coady writes, ‘[I]f we accept that some incidental killing (collateral damage) is morally legitimate in a just war … it is then unclear (at least to me) how the non-combatants … have been wronged. They have not been done any injustice, though their deaths are a horrible and deeply regrettable outcome of what we are assuming to be right action’ (Coady 2008, 84). The deaths of innocents are not even registered as a form of violence here.


The second reduction is that of agency. Defenders of just liberal violence deal only with the question of “reactive” agency. They want to find out if it is “just” for virtuous liberals to wage war, torture or exploit people in sweatshops in reaction to a situation that is taken to be the irremovable starting point of one’s theorizing – a kind of inadvertent “realism”. It is this drastic reduction of agency which enables Nicholas Kristoff to claim, without irony, that ‘the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they do not exploit enough’ (Kristoff 2017). Gone from the picture is any attempt to change the conditions in which severe exploitation is a person’s best choice. Only with agency reduced in this way can exploiting people be rebranded as a morally heroic deed, such that it is good and laudable to be violent. Similarly, in the case of interrogational torture, defenders simply assume that we live in a world where evil lunatics keep popping up, placing virtuous liberals in a position where they must sometimes torture, lest a disaster occur. The question of why it is that these situations keep arising – if indeed they do – is located beyond the theorists’ epistemic and moral concern – it is taken to be analytically separate. This reduction of agency also makes it possible for Uwe Steinhoff to claim that if he ‘somehow contribute[s] to the spread of self-defensive torture that helps to save innocent children from culpable kidnappers, then that would be a good thing’ (Steinhoff 2013, 156).


This leads us to a third reduction, that of perspective. Defenders of just liberal violence reconstruct complex realities of the material world in such a way that a binary “right vs. wrong” narrative can always be maintained, approaching violence in some artificially constructed philosophical safe-space that is kept neatly separate from a serious recognition of the social structures, material realities and power hierarchies of one’s time. Sweatshop defender Matt Zwolinski, for example, assumes that it is unproblematic for him to ‘[treat] sweatshops as a somewhat isolated moral phenomenon. That is, I am asking what we should do about sweatshops, while holding most of the other conditions of the world (large inequalities of wealth among nations, severe poverty in the developing world, and a growing system of global capitalism) constant’ (Zwolinski 2007, 717, fn. 18). We also find this “ceteris paribus thinking” in contemporary just war theory. As leading theorist Jeff McMahan insists, there are ‘accepted criteria for the individuation of wars’ and ‘[a] war is necessarily [fought] against specific adversaries, who must, if the war is just, have made themselves liable to be warred against’ (McMahan 2011, 136). I argue in Just Liberal Violence that just war theorists ‘reduce the world of war to a non-place that can be grasped, neatly, with its binary moral structure and tight conceptual apparatus. Whatever falls outside these narrow parameters – whether extreme power hierarchies, radical inequalities, economic interdependencies, or ongoing histories of colonialism and coloniality – turns out to be unobservable if we look at it through the lens of a discourse obsessed with making binary moral judgements based on individuals rights and/or liabilities’. A parallel to this can be found in defences of torture, where the call for the legalisation of interrogational torture fails to recognize the structural implications that such legalisation would yield; the development of what Bob Brecher calls a ‘torturous society’ (Brecher 2007, 72).


My book is an invitation to think differently about violence: more critically and productively. We need to transcend the “analytic atomism” that characterizes contemporary accounts of just liberal violence. Instead of formulating abstract philosophical truths in a political vacuum, we need to recognize the complex ways and hierarchical structures in which people are interconnected in the material world. In other words, we need to politicize our thinking about violence. If we fail to do this, we will continue being committed to a “moralistic realism” that – however inadvertently – functions to keep this world precisely as horrendous a place as it already is. Weak analysis can unfortunately have that effect, particularly if put forward with missionary zeal. And that’s why I had to write this book (as much as I loathed doing it): against thinking that is as irresponsible as it is influential, and for a recognition of the importance of thinking about violence in a way that takes seriously the structures and hierarchies of the material reality within which it occurs.


Michael Neu




Bob Brecher, Torture and the Ticking Bomb (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).


Coady, C.A.J., Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).


Kristoff, Nicholas, ‘Where Sweatshops Are a Dream’, The New York Times, January 14, 2009, accessed May 10, 2017,


McMahan, Jeff, ‘Duty, Obedience, Desert, and Proportionality in War: A Response’, Ethics 122, 1 (2011): 135–67.


Powell, Benjamin, Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Steinhoff, Uwe, On the Ethics of Torture (Albany, NY: Suny Press, 2013).


Zwolinski, Matt, ‘Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation’, Business Ethics Quarterly 17, 4 (2007): 689–727.

Series - Off the Fence: Morality, Politics and Society